Life's real tragedy, we are gravely informed in a quite famous and now quite old French film, is that "everyone has his reasons." To someone of stern principles this may seem to be a throwaway observation by one of the forefathers of our contemporary relativists who don't like principles because principles imply responsibility, the mortal enemy of modern man – yet this is not the true context. Our reasons may be our own and they may be complicated, deranged, or volatile. The mere fact that they exist, however, allows us to choose or reject interaction with the other inhabitants of our world. I have my reasons for writing, and some may suspect they involve egotism, megalomania, and moral preachment, charges that could be leveled against any writer. Nevertheless, any regular reader of these pages would correctly enumerate as the motive forces aesthetic bliss and the discovery of inner truth because those are the only reasons one should write at all. That's why when a second-rate poet once accused this great genius of writing in two languages out of excessive ambition, he simultaneously betrayed his commensurate ambition and inferior talent. So if everyone has his reasons, how can we possibly enact legislation to govern millions? Where do we cleave intent from result? A few questions for the thoughtful reader of this incomparable tale.
According to our narrator it is no uncommon occurrence on a large ship, especially one with high turnover and many fresh new tars, to find one seaman who distinguishes himself solely by his good looks. Upon this man is conferred the unspoken title of "Handsome Sailor" (sailors generally abjure fancy appellations) and he walks among his peers exuding some of the magnetism which in our days we normally reserve for movie stars or divas. While he is "invariably a proficient in his perilous calling, he was also more or less of a mighty boxer or wrestler," a perfect combination of "strength and beauty." In short:
The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.
This is, we remember, only a typical portrait; our man Billy does not appear to have any of the puncher in him. But he works hard on his ship, the Rights-of-man, earns an inordinate amount of respect given his petty duties, and his captain is soon loath to part with him. Yet as fate would have it, a larger vessel by the name of Bellipotent (a lovely bell-ringing pun) requests his services, and he is transferred despite his being the Rights' "jewel" and "peacemaker" – which brings us to a small aside. There could not be a clearer Christian parallel than the use of these two epithets, but not all parallels signify anything more than the recurrence of circumstance. Billy's ingenuousness – he cannot even read or write – extenuates the impact of his looks and converts him not unquickly into a pleasant reminder to his shipmates of their long-lost youth. For that reason, we learn, does he incur the wrath of a man by the name of John Claggart.
Claggart holds a special place in the pantheon of villainy because we are allowed two glances into his person. The first is in his outward appearance ("a man about five and thirty, somewhat spare and tall ... his hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil"), by which he is likened to Tecumseh, a cleric during the English Civil War, and some distant Greeks, probably Spartans, with whom he, as the Bellipotent's master-at-arms, may have shared some notions of naumachia. He is also rumored to have been a chevalier who was Anglicized and stowed aboard to compensate "for some mysterious swindle" (as with many manifestations of the Devil, he neither has an accent in English nor really speaks like a native). The untraceability of his origin corresponds to that of evil itself, and as evil cannot exist in a vacuum and must have a referent, so must Claggart come upon something to unleash the demons that dance around his soul. He finds his bugbear in the comely shape of William Budd, who one day just so happens to spill his supper upon the deck and Claggart's path:
It is more than probable that when the Master-at-arms in the scene last given applied to the sailor the proverb Handsome is as handsome does, he there let escape an ironic inkling, not caught by the young sailors who heard it, as to what it was that had first moved him against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty. Now envy and antipathy, passions irreconcilable in reason, nevertheless in fact may spring conjoined like Chang and Eng in one birth. Is Envy then such a monster? Well, though many an arraigned mortal has in hopes of mitigated penalty pleaded guilty to horrible actions, did ever anybody seriously confess to envy? Something there is in it universally felt to be more shameful than even felonious crime. And not only does everybody disown it, but the better sort are inclined to incredulity when it is in earnest imputed to an intelligent man. But since its lodgement is in the heart not the brain, no degree of intellect supplies a guarantee against it. But Claggart's was no vulgar form of the passion. Nor, as directed toward Billy Budd, did it partake of that streak of apprehensive jealousy that marred Saul's visage perturbedly brooding on the comely young David. Claggart's envy struck deeper. If askance he eyed the good looks, cheery health and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent. To him, the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him preeminently the Handsome Sailor. One person excepted, the Master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.
The "person excepted" is Edward Fairfax Vere, the Bellipotent's captain, who one night will become the third party in a dark reunion in the first mate's quarters. Of Vere much has been said, both in Billy Budd and in the story's expansive secondary literature, so we would be best advised to keep our comments short. Vere is praised as a brilliant sailor, the best of his active rank, and a man of philosophical bent – which makes his opinions on Billy's actions all the more damning. Vere also persists as the object of much speculation because of his "pedantic" and allegedly "aristocratic" disposition (at one point his person is described as "a streak ... of King's yarn in a coil of navy rope"). That Billy will at different junctures be suspected both of blue blood and foreignness renders his relationship to Vere and Claggart all the more crucial – and no more needs to be said.
If style were all that mattered, Billy Budd might be the best-written prose work in the English language, no meaner than the sagas of a bowelless Scotsman and a melancholy Moor. As it were, some of Melville's far less gifted associates have entrapped our poor sailor in a Christian allegory, which it is in a way so obvious as to divest it of any allegorical meaning, or a study of latent homosexuality, which we can safely say it isn't. Proponents of gender studies, that claptrap of indignation, have never really understood what could bond a squad of non-related heterosexual men together in an army or a sports team, a plain term called camaraderie. That there are no women in Billy Budd, or scarcely any in this masterpiece, confounds and upsets them profoundly, but there is little we can do for such minds. The best way to understand our boy Billy is as a victim of what can be bluntly described as fate and more roundly described as man's manifold reasons for opposing the good that rests in all of us. That is to say, there may be one instance of justice in the codex memorized by the judge in a now dimly-recollected law school classroom, and another embedded deep within the valves of his almighty heart. Billy falls distinctly between both natural categories and could just as easily be absolved as condemned. There is also that pleasing ballad ("Billy in the darbies") that concludes the story. The attentive reader may ask himself why the rather unusual "darbies" is an anagram of "seabird," or why, for that matter, the poem's name an anagram of "I, Billy, death's brine." And that same reader will not fail to notice that very singular conversation between the ship's purser and its surgeon. Maybe heavenly phenomena should be not limited to the firmament.